With sunny days on the way and the promise of spectacular beach getaways on the horizon, the last thing you need to worry about is how the poor water quality at your favorite beach may harm your family. Luckily, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, an annual investigative report, can help you make smarter choices about where to travel, this summer and beyond. The annual report, now in its 22nd year, was created by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and shows that not all is safe and sound on some of America’s most popular beaches. For example, NRDC’s analysis of water quality at coastal U.S. beaches found that the number of beach closing and safety advisory days reached the third-highest level ever in 2011, a total of 23,481 days. Worse than the beach closures is why those beaches closed down. More than two-thirds of beach closings and advisories were issued because bacteria levels in the beachwater exceeded public health standards, a scary problem that indicates the presence of human or animal waste in the water (ugh).
What’s Wrong with Swimming in Raw Sewage?
Beyond the obvious grossness involved, you can actually get really sick from swimming in water that’s been infested with raw sewage. The NRDC report points out that many illnesses are associated with polluted beachwater including, “Stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis.” Keep in mind that kids are at a higher risk of contracting a real whopper of an illness when exposed, because adventuresome kids, unlike more refined adults, tend to go nuts in the water. Kids splash more, submerge their little heads and swallow water while swimming. Overall the illness figures are staggering. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3.5 million people become ill from contact with raw sewage each year. However, real figures may be much higher because people who get sick due to contact with raw sewage in water sources don’t always know it and thus fail to report it to local health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also found that infections associated with recreational water use have grown over the past several decades. The NRDC report notes, for example, that fecal contamination at Los Angeles and Orange County beaches cause between 627,800 and 1,479,200 gastrointestinal illnesses annually. So nope, even if the thought didn’t totally gross you out already, you still really wouldn’t want to jump into an ocean of sewage.